Entering his second season at the helm of the Nevada Union varsity football team Dennis Houlihan is ready to put last season behind him and start building the Miners into winners.
“I came in so late last season, I didn’t get an offseason with the team,” said Houlihan. “I basically had three weeks and it was game time, and the schedule didn’t help. But that’s fine, that was great, I enjoyed the rude awakening.”
With a full year to prepare, Houlihan said the 2014 Miners are bigger, stronger and better prepared.
“They are very confident right now,” he said of his players. “They wanted to move forward, they wanted to do the right stuff in the offseason. We are much stronger and faster than we were.
“We didn’t touch a football until three months ago. It was all about building bodies and it seems to be they bought into it. They all made so many gains and its really brought our team closer.”
The offseason weight lifting regimen and summer practices seem to have paid off, said Houlihan.
“We’re way beyond where we were last year as far as executing plays, and knowing our assignments,” he said.
Unlike the 2013 season, NU returns several starters. Most notably in the backfield.
Bevy of backs
The Miners have their top two rushers back from last season in Travis Owens (409 rush yards, 218 receiving yards, 4 total TDs) and Mo Nieves (433 rush yards, 5 TDs in six games).
“(Owens) went from about 160 pounds to about 185 and he’s not a tall kid,” said Houlihan. “He doesn’t have an ounce of fat, he’s a strong kid and he worked his butt off in the weight room. He has the same things as he did last year, he was a 1,000 yard all-purpose guy, but with these physical gains he’s more confident and he was voted to be one of our captains.”
Owens said he expects the Miners to put forth a better on-the-field product this season.
“I’m definitely expecting a good season,” Owens said. “We may not have the size other teams do, but we have the heart and the talent.”
The 5-foot, 8-inch Owens does a little bit of everything as far as running the ball, catching passes out of the backfield and returning kicks.
“Everything we do will really be based around him because of what he brings to the table,” Houlihan said.
Nieves, who led NU in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns last season, said he has taken on a much larger leadership role in his senior year.
“I’ve definitely taken on a leadership role,” he said. “I want to take charge and make sure we have a strong season and go as far as we can.”
Joining Owens and Nieves as ball carriers will be junior James Schnitzius, who quarterbacked the junior varsity team last season.
“James Schnitzius will be our 2-back, and he’s still our backup quarterback, but I don’t want him standing on the sidelines, he’s too good of an athlete,” Houlihan said. “He’s an NU kid, him and his brother, and you want to see him on the field, so we taught him a new position and he’s really taken to it.”
Also toting the ball for NU this season will be Dylan Pfadt and Isaac Rodriguez, said Houlihan.
The Miners will stick with the Wing-T offensive scheme, Houlihan said, but it will often be out of a pistol formation.
With former NU football coach and athletic director Pat Houlihan joining his son on the sideline, Dennis Houlihan said he is excited to see his offensive line at work.
“The first thing I did was bring my dad back to coach,” Dennis Houlihan said. “He’s a longtime NU coach, he was the AD here for many years, he’s one of those guys that gets a lot out of those linemen.”
Making up the line this year will be five seniors and a junior, including Nick McFall, Tyler Droivold, Enzo Arata, Matt Cross, Nick Shust and, at tight end, Andrew Schnitzius.
“These guys went through the hard knocks last year, and this year they are bigger and stronger,” said Dennis Houlihan. “We will average 250 (pounds) on the line and we won’t get pushed around as much.”
The improved line has junior quarterback Justus Spillner excited and confident for the upcoming season.
From the pocket
“I can already tell my confidence is boosted because of how much they’ve grown in the last year,” Spillner said. “It will allow me to sit in the pocket a little longer.”
After being thrown to the wolves as a sophomore quarterback, Spillner said the lumps he took along the way have made him a better prepared for the 2014 season.
“Fans should expect a better season than last year, for sure,” said Spillner.
The 6-foot, 3-inch, 210-pound signal caller attended several elite football camps throughout the summer and gained recognition as a player to watch, Dennis Houlihan said.
“Last year, I put him in a really tough situation,” Dennis Houlihan said. “After game three we made him take every snap from there on out, but part of the reasoning of that was to see what he’s going to do now. He’s throwing the ball better, the timing is right. I think it’s paying off for him.”
With Spillner’s vast improvement from last season, Dennis Houlihan said he has a reinvigorated confidence in the pass game.
The main receiving threat for NU will be Drew Daniels, who saw time on the varsity squad as a sophomore last season and comes into 2014 taller and physically stronger.
“Drew has grown,” Dennis Houlihan said. “He’s more confident and he’s done the same things that Justus has done. He went to camps and improved his skills, and you can see the difference.”
Also splitting out for NU will be Joe Ten-Eyck and Kase Scott.
Last season the Miners allowed a whopping 51.1 points per game, and that is something senior middle linebacker Josh Belendez won’t stand for this season.
“I expect a huge step up this year,” Belendez said. “I’m trying to not let anything go in practice. Last year was a struggle, but this year it’s going to be different. I promise the community that and my team that. We will make sure nothing gets past us.”
Belendez led the team in tackles last season with 81, 50 of which were solo, and 16 were for a loss. Belendez will be joined by senior Ten-Eyck as the primary backers in the Miners 4-2-5 defensive scheme.
“We’ve got a little different defense were running, it’s a similar alignment, but different philosophy,” said NU defensive coordinator Brad Dal Bon. “It will be more of an attack style defense.
“We’re going to face more teams that throw it all over the field and so we need to have better pass defenders on the field that are also big enough to stop the run. A lot of hybrid, linebacker/DB kids on the field, and were going to bring a lot of pressure.”
Getting pressure on the quarterback will be a must as NU faces some very prolific pass attacks this season including that of Folsom and All-Section quarterback Jake Browning.
Lining up in the trenches for NU will be Arata, Tim Rubino, Colton Barker and Caleb Patterson, said Dal Bon.
In the defensive backfield, the Miners will have Daniels at one cornerback spot and Owens at another with Rodriguez rotating in. Playing safety will be Scott.
Despite coming off a deplorable 2013 season, Dal Bon said his defense and the team as a whole is upbeat about this season.
“We don’t have a poor us attitude,” he said. “This is the 2014 team and they know we have to pursue the ball, they know we have to stop the run, defend the pass, and they are just soaking up all our knowledge.”
Tough road ahead
While the Miners are improved by all accounts, it doesn’t change the fact that they play in one of the fiercest leagues in California. The Miners open up Sierra Foothill League Sept. 26 against reigning SFL and Sac-Joaquin Section D-II champ Del Oro. They follow with a game against Woodcreek before taking on SJS D-I champ Folsom. After Folsom comes 2012 SJS D-I and California D-I state champ Granite Bay. They then close the season with games against the 2013 SJS D-I runner up Oak Ridge and rival Rocklin.
All this comes after a non-league season in which they have to face quality teams in Pleasant Grove and Placer.
The Miners open the 2014 season on the road against Placer Aug. 29.